intimacy avoidant

I am writing to the partners of the emotionally unavailable partner. Men have been found more in the insecure-avoidant attachment category and women in the insecure-anxious attachment category. For this reason, I'll be using gendered language in this post.

Adult attachment styles in romantic relationships

There is great interest in learning about attachment styles today and for good reason. Attachment theory has been found to be a reliable indicator of patterns of behavior. Children with an avoidant attachment style grow up to be adults with avoidant attachment. And most people with an avoidant attachment style who are in relationships tend to have issues with romantic partners.

This generally holds true for all three of the four attachment styles.

In a simplified way, types of attachments can be plotted on a graph. One line represents attitudes about ourselves, and the other line represents attitudes about other people. Those of us who feel more positively about ourselves and about others is "securely" attached. Those who feel poorly about themselves but positively toward others are "anxiously" attached.

Individuals who trust themselves but not others are "avoidantly" attached. Finally, those who don't feel positively about either themselves or others are "chaotically" attached or "disengaged."

Attachment develops and is shaped by our primary caregivers. While we often have one primary attachment figure, it is not the only one. We have may have many people in our lives as children (the other parent, siblings, and extended family) who impact us.

For this reason, few of us are "pure" attachment styles but instead are a mixture of several. We can also score 100% in secure attachment, 35% on avoidant, and 15% anxious or a mixture of any other style.

In this post, we will talk about avoidant attachments. These styles often create problems for their spouses, who may feel lonely and disconnected from their mates. Regardless of their efforts to be pleasing or appealing, they get the message that their avoidant spouse would rather be alone.

Insecure Attachment Styles

All attachment styles that are not "secure" are "insecure." An avoidant attachment style goes by many names: "avoidant dismissive attachment style" or simply "fearful-avoidant." Like all attachment styles, the child develops avoidant attachment within the first 18-24 months of life. An avoidant person was once an avoidant child, shaped by the way they were raised.

Intimacy avoidance is a common condition that affects people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. It is a way of protecting oneself from emotional closeness or intimacy with others. It is a problem that can be both debilitating and isolating.

Origins of Avoidant Attachment

Mary Ainsworth discovered that children who demonstrate an avoidant attachment style tend to be less exploratory. They were also more emotionally reserved when their mothers departed during the research project dubbed the "strange situation."

Most children appear distressed by being left in the care of strangers, but these children do not. They also do not appear impacted upon the mother's return; they may ignore her or refuse to make eye contact. Intimacy avoidance can be caused by a variety of things, including fear of:

  • commitment,
  • being hurt, or
  • being vulnerable.

A traumatic event, developmental trauma, or a lack of trust in a relationship can also cause intimacy avoidance. A lack of self-confidence or self-esteem can also cause intimacy avoidance. The symptoms of intimacy avoidance can include:

  • an unwillingness to share feelings or thoughts,
  • an inability to commit to relationships,
  • fear of being rejected, or
  • a desire to stay away from close relationships.

Other symptoms may include a need to control relationships, problems handling criticism, or feelings of detachment and emptiness.

Theodore Millon discusses how parental behavior shaped the child. Rejection took the form primarily of belittlement, teasing, and humiliation.

Although these children might not have been physically abused, the parental message was that the child was:

"weak, worthless, and beneath contempt. As a result of this demeaning and deprecating attitude, the child learned to devalue him- or herself. He or she develops little or no sense of self-esteem. Being worthless, derided, and forlorn, the child felt powerless to counterattack, to overcome the humiliation and ridicule to which he or she was exposed."

Being so rejected and demeaned, the child becomes mistrustful of people and learns to keep their distance from close relationships.

Adult Relationships and Romantic Relationships

The avoidant personality is consistently fretful, anxious, and remote. Despite wanting acceptance and intimacy, their behavior shows the opposite. They cope with life by giving up on the emotional connection. Their primary goal is avoidance of others, being afraid of having feelings and wants, that will leave them conflicted and frustrated.

They become detached onlookers who find peace by detaching from or minimizing needs and wishes. When they are very neurotic, they are extremely alienated. They prefer to stay at the periphery of a social world and find safety in drifting into their fantasy world.

In the beginning, these marriages may appear to be going smoothly due to an intensely emotional or sexual connection. However, the Intimacy Avoidant may become trapped, smothered, or confused and start looking for their partner's flaws.

They might even want intimacy but not know how to respond to their partner's expectations. It is important for the couples therapist to understand the complaining spouse's story.

Treatment Approaches

Individual Treatment

The most common way to treat intimacy avoidance is through individual therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is often used to help people identify and understand the triggers and patterns of their avoidance. This can be done through the exploration of past experiences, feelings, and beliefs.

It can also help individuals to recognize and challenge the negative thought patterns that contribute to avoidance. In addition, men can learn to replace these thoughts with more helpful and positive ones.

A therapist can help identify the cause of the avoidance and work with the individual to develop healthier coping strategies.

Other treatments, such as mindfulness-based therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), have also been found to be helpful. Finally, medication, relaxation techniques, and self-help techniques can also be useful.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga may help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Medication can be used to treat underlying mental health issues that may be contributing to the avoidance.

Finally, self-help techniques may include learning to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs. It also helps the individual learn how to communicate openly and honestly with others. No matter what the cause may be, it is essential to seek help.

Couples Counseling

Couples counseling for an Intimacy Avoidant Marriage often starts with the recognition and handling of concurrent mental health issues. These include depression, substance abuse, anxiety, personality disorders, or challenges in expressing emotions.

Couples Therapy can also help people learn how to open up to others, be more trusting, and develop healthier relationships. It can help each partner become more aware of their own and each other's needs.

These therapies focus on helping individuals increase their acceptance of their own feelings and thoughts, as well as their partner's. This can lead to improved communication and understanding between partners. This can lead to increased understanding and intimacy.

With the right kind of help, it is possible to identify problems and move towards healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

By learning to understand better and accept themselves and their partner, people can start to move away from destructive avoidance patterns. In addition, they are moving toward building deeper, more meaningful connections.

With guidance and support, individuals can learn to identify and challenge unhelpful thought patterns. Our thoughts contribute to avoidance and replace them with more helpful, positive ones. With the right help, it is possible to overcome intimacy avoidance and build healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

Help for Intimacy Avoidance

The connections and insecurities formed in childhood do not have to be permanent. Through therapeutic practices and conscious efforts to have healthy relationships, people can change. Those with attachment issues can acquire the feeling of "earned security," as identified by Robert Weiss.

Therapy can assist Intimacy Avoidants in breaking past their early upbringing. They also learn the aptitudes necessary for true closeness and durable emotional connections.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with intimacy avoidance, contact a mental health counselor or couples therapist. With the right kind of help, it is possible to manage this style and develop healthier relationships with others.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Now what? My wife and I have gone through some real discoveries about ourselves after experiencing mulitple major lifes milestones simultaneously, with the loss of parents and total isolation from the world during lockdown. Which began our introspective journey to why we are who we are, and what we need to do to help ourselves as individuals and what we can do for eachothers recognitions, while maintaining a child with a mild developmental delay diagnosis for now.

    My wife grew up in a houshold with two emotionally detached parents, who were both abusive, controlling, manipulative, and extream legal substance abusers, with 40+ years of legal prescriptions of Opiods, muscle relaxers, and sleeping pills, along with 2-6 alcoholic beverages per day. Her father died last year and her mother had a mental eppisode and gave $500,000 of her and her husbands retirement savings and sold her car to give it all to one total stranger she met on the internet. My wife was questioned by her mother and fathe once for eating bread off a restaurant table because they charged her parents for the bread. Her father told her she ruined the bill because she ate the bread. This was the level of value they placed on her.monitary needs. My wife also developed an eating disorder while living with her parents. So my wife realizimg just how toxic her parent were and are no longer speaks with her mother due to discovering she has been lying to us for 12 years and never told her daughter the truth. My wifes mother and father both had serios attachment issues with all their relationships and had ZERO close freinds. My wife is now distant, independant, extreamly motivated by work, and finds faults in me that are not grounded in reality. Like telling me I have a budget problem, when I have not bought shoes or clothing in 5 years, spend my money on fixing up really broken things around the house mostly for others, and do so not by buying the most expensive fix but the absolute cheapest even inventive fixes. My wife has never been in therapy, her ENTIRE family believes therapist are all quacks, and share this line when ever therapy is discussed: "why don't you visit a therapist, tell him all about my problems, and then tell what I should do."

    While I grew up in a hosehold of a deceased alcoholic father (7yrs old), divorced when I was three. An adopted brother 5 years older who physically and mentally tortured me daily, NOT Brotherly love, as explaind away by my entire family whenever I told them. My brother kicked me in the back so hard and for so long I eas bed ridden for 3 days when I was 12, and my back went out on ots own without physical trauma when I was 14 leaving me on the floor incapable of getting up. I am now overly attached to my relationships learning and struggeling with how to say no, and set healthy boundries. I've been to therapy before 4 times but only found it helpful with one of my therapists.

    We both recognize all this has left us trying to pick up the pieces, while building our marriage. With the vast number of frauds out there, what do we look for when trying to find a decent couples therapist who will not just assign basic explinations, while not using the precise tools (exercises) necessary to help us recognize and adapt to our childhood traumas'; bassically making things worse for us rather than better???

    Are there credentials and certain personality traits we need to look for in a therapist which will help us help ourselves with these complexities? Or are we doomed trying to navigate through a vast feild of people until we find the right fit for us as individuals AND as a couple?

  2. My Avoidant Attachment Disorder manifests itself as intimacy anxiety which is turn causes me to suffer from severe sexual dysfunctions whenever a relationship starts getting serious. The first few sexual encounters with any given woman are usually fine performance-wise. However at some point within a few weeks of a relationship I suddenly lose all desire shutting down my ability to either ejaculate with a partner or to get and hold an erection.

    For decades I thought I was simply easily bored sexually so when the dysfunctions would start I would break off the relationship and move on to another and the whole situation would repeat itself. It wasn’t until after putting off marriage until I was in my 40’s I finally wed and the sexual dysfunctions started on the wedding night and never improved making the marriage both unconsummated. My wife and I spent a few years going from Therapist to Therapist but they all insisted on treating the symptoms (The inhibited ejaculation and E.D.) putting us both through a tortuous and unpleasant series of “Homework Exercises” including Sensate Focus which was the final straw for my wife who blamed herself for my total inability to perform sexually.

    In my 50’s I finally went to a Psychiatrist who suggested family trauma as a child of alcoholics was causing these anxiety related sexual problems but he was unable to take it farther than that and my marriage is still sexless 20 years later. He also mentioned I was suffering from a “Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Disorder” but at the time I had no idea what he was talking about until years later when I came across this article which, unlike anything else I have read about male sexual disorders and DAAD describes me to a “T”

  3. One of the most profound influences on the way we behave in relationships is our early attachment patterns. As children, the attachment patterns we formed were based on adaptations we made in order to feel secure in our environment. The ways we were cared for and related to by our parents or primary caretakers led us to develop an “internal working model” of how others are likely to react to us and how we should react to have our needs met.

    If we had parents who were emotionally available and attuned to us, we most likely formed a secure attachment. However, if we had a parent who was emotionally or physically rejecting, absent, or inattentive to our needs, we may have formed an avoidant attachment pattern in which we felt like we had to take care of ourselves.

    In this case, we may have found that the best way to get our needs met was to act like we didn’t have any. We may even have disconnected from our own awareness of our needs. If we had a parent who sometimes met our needs but other times was intrusive or emotionally draining by acting out of their own need, we may have formed an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern in which we became confused and preoccupied. We may have had to cling or seek reassurance, fearing our needs would not get met.

    As we grow up, these early attachment patterns may become models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives. The behaviors and defenses we formed as a result of these childhood dynamics sometimes go on to influence us in our relationships. People who experienced an avoidant attachment with a parent will likely go on to form a dismissive attachment pattern in their adult romantic relationship. A person with an ambivalent/anxious attachment pattern as a child will be prone to form a preoccupied attachment.

    Many people are curious about which attachment category applies to them along with the psychological defenses they’ve formed that interfere with their relationships. But before we get into how each of these attachment patterns manifest themselves in a relationship, it’s important to note that we aren’t always right about identifying which category of attachment best applies to us and our relationships.

    In this article, I’ll try to illuminate what dismissive and preoccupied attachment styles look like, but also why it’s challenging for people to correctly determine their attachment pattern. This process is beneficial because if a person can accurately identify their pattern, they can start to take steps to form more secure attachments, challenge their defensive adaptations, and enjoy closer, more satisfying relationships.

    Dismissive Attachment

    When a child experiences an avoidant attachment pattern, they develop a tendency to feel pseudo-independent. They learned to take care of themselves or self-parent. Their early environment triggered them to disconnect from their needs because it felt painful or shameful to experience them when expressing them led to no response.

    As adults, these individuals maintain a sense of disconnection to protect themselves from painful emotions. They even denigrate others for having needs. As a result, they may feel blank or directionless in relation to their wants. Their desires feel problematic or uncomfortable, because of the shame they would feel to not have their wants fulfilled or their needs met.

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    People with a dismissive attachment pattern tend to be the “distancer” in their relationship. They may be more emotionally unavailable or even seek isolation. Their partners may complain that they are not there for them or interested in meeting their wants or needs. This is in large part because a dismissively attached individual has learned to be self-contained. Since they’ve learned to shield their own wants and needs from others, they have trouble understanding when someone else wants or needs something from them.

    People with a dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be more inward and deny the importance of being close to someone else. They may be psychologically defended and easily inclined to shut down emotionally. They may also struggle to understand or identify the emotional needs of others and themselves.

    Some people find it easy to label their partner as having a dismissive attachment pattern, however, it’s not always easy to see this pattern in yourself. For instance, when someone with a dismissive attachment pattern feels a need, they often assume they’re being too needy instead of realizing that this is a basic human response. In addition, they may feel aloof or like the distancer when they’re being pursued by their partner, but if they feel rejected, they may feel extremely anxious. They may be a distancer in their relationship, but when their partner pulls away, they become insecure and start to pursue.

    Babies who were identified as having an avoidant attachment style often showed little outward reaction to a parent’s absence, however, a heart monitor revealed an elevated heart rate as a marker of their anxiety. Similarly, an adult with a dismissive attachment still experiences anxiety and still wants security, but their learned mode of relating is clouding their natural desire and tolerance for closeness. They feel unclear about what they want and need from others, and they are afraid of the unbearable shame of not feeling important enough to attend to. Because of this confusion, they may incorrectly identify their attachment pattern as anxious.

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    Preoccupied Attachment

    A person with a preoccupied attachment is often seen as the “pursuer” in a relationship. They may feel like they need to make an active effort to get what they want and therefore, can sometimes engage in behavior patterns that seem clingy, controlling, or intrusive. Because they’re used to not having their needs met consistently or in an attuned or sensitive manner, they may often feel insecure, jealous, or nervous about the state of their relationship. They may have a tendency to look to their partner to “rescue” or “complete” them.

    An anxiously attached person assumes they want closeness but engages in patterns that actually leave a certain amount of emotional turmoil and distance. Although they may perceive themselves as feeling real love toward their partner, they may actually be experiencing emotional hunger. Their actions, which are often based on desperation or insecurity, exacerbate their own fears of distance or rejection. When their partner does come closer or gives them what they want, they may react in unconscious ways that push their partner away or create distance. They may find that their true tolerance for intimacy is much smaller than they thought because real love and closeness would challenge their core beliefs about themselves and relationships. Therefore, while they may believe they want security, they actually feel compelled to remain in a state of anxiety.

    In general, an insecure attachment pattern on either side of the spectrum can leave us with skewed ideas about ourselves, about how others are likely to treat us and how much love and care we deserve. A dismissive person may believe they need more space, while a preoccupied person may think they need more closeness. In reality, most of us maintain a fundamental belief that we are unworthy or incapable of getting the love we want and need, and we form core defenses that uphold that belief. If we can be open to knowing our attachment pattern and learning the behaviors that get in the way of having the love we say we want, we can start to forge a path toward security and form healthier, more rewarding long-term relationships. We can challenge our old way of thinking about ourselves and begin to internalize a new image of ourselves as lovable and worthy of love.

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    Self Recon
    Submitted by TheTrueTrue on December 2, 2018 – 7:43pm
    Thanks for this article. Ive been on a search to figure out why I’m the way I am and why people respond to me the way they do for some time. The only thing present for all those experiences is myself and the search for myself has led me to all different types of things. The anxious-avoidant articles, codependent articles, mbti, pinterest, lol Dismissive sounds more like it unfortunately. The irony of it is while you feel like you are advocating for what you need, feeding that emotional hunger, it appears to be controlling to the receiver or other attachment styles. My ex was the former and Im the later form of attachmebnt according to this article and we couldnt help eachother at all. Now Im dating someone who has a normal attachment to others. Ideal fam life from childhood into the present and I feel like I coukd likely push him away while I feel like Im brining him closer to me. I feel sorrowful in a way because I dont know the first step to fixing me for me…which I imagine woukd indirectly positively affect anyone around me, including the bf. Where are those articles at? The, dismissive attached person’s not so anonymous, anonymous. A girl can drean right?!

    Book for attachment styles
    Submitted by Adrian Villalobos-Moreno on October 29, 2019 – 4:43pm
    Try “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller‎

    I have read it and it offers a lot of insight on attachment styles. You may also want to look at forgiveness. The practice of knowing how to forgive ourselves for not knowing better, as well as others when they hurt apparently goes a long way. I just recently started to learn forgiveness because I didn’t grow knowing or being taught about. I know this book will help. It has me. Good luck on your inner journey.

    Proving it’s difficult to know…
    Submitted by anon on June 2, 2019 – 6:47pm
    Yeah, I agree it’s difficult to know which camp you fall in. I first empathised with the avoidant then recognised myself in the preoccupied’s desire for greater closeness (but not the behaviour). I think at the end of the day, we’re all individuals and probably have a mix of stuff going on. I tend to hide behind positive or neutral emotions, have difficulty accessing anger (and often mistake it for anxiety), automatically deactivate and calm down when other people get heated (but it’s because I think there needs to be one calm person around or we’ll never get to the bottom of this!), and have great difficulty understanding my own needs, noticing my own emotions, knowing when I’m being mistreated etc. etc. etc.

    But I’m also always the person who ‘fixes’ the relationship, puts my needs aside for theirs, puts more effort in than they do etc. which sounds preoccupied. I always end up the ‘mother’ to my bfs and over time they become so child-like that I am stuck in a kind of limbo where I care so much about them I don’t want to leave but have lost all romantic interest, so want to leave. I seem to get perpetually stuck in this “pain either way” limbo.

    It took me almost 25 years of suffering with sexual dysfunctions, intimacy anxiety and a lot of stress and pain, plus visits to many therapists over the years to finally get an answer why I can only function sexually with strangers, paid sex and one night stands. Any kind of ongoing intimate relationship with a woman causes me to be unable to perform sexually. Most therapists threw in the towel unable to help but when I switched from sex therapists to a psychiatrist he explained that I had an avoidant attachment disorder due to childhood abuse which in turn would cause severe intimacy anxiety which shut down my ability to get an erection or ejaculate (inhibited ejaculation) Unfortunately there is no cure and my 20 year marriage has been sexless from the beginning because of this. I want intimacy but by body doesn’t.

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  4. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally”

    For years I have been trying to find out what causes me to lose desire for a woman after one or two sexual encounters. This quote from you article caught my eye because of the word “boredom” I never felt any anticipatory anxiety or any anxiety before or during sex even when my body would suddenly shut down and I would no longer be able to perform. What I thought it was, and what I told myself it was in the 15 years I dated and after marrying was that I was simply bored sexually very easily. This explanation made perfect sense because that’s exactly how I felt- sexually bored. When this would happen I would break off the relationship and start another just to have it start all over again. But when I started researching the probable being “bored” as a cause of sexual dysfunction, especially at the beginning of a new relationship was never mentioned anywhere. Now I know what it is- some kind of subconscious anxiety that shuts me down sexually. I went to a number of Sex Therapists and anxiety was never even mentioned. Too bad This problem has made my life miserable and caused my 30 year marriage to be sexless.

  5. “But eventually, the intimacy avoidant begins to feel alternately trapped, bored, or smothered, and then initiates a pattern of hyper-focusing on their new partner’s shortcomings and begins to systematically disengage emotionally” Wow in all the years I have been trying to find out why my relationships start out fine but then, after a few sexual encounters I suddenly lose all desire and my ability to function sexually with the women. I married in my late 30’s but dated 15 years before that and although I felt very attracted to the women I dated the relationship would only last a few weeks at most and then I would want out. My marriage has been sexually troubled from the beginning and for decades we have lived as room mates. I never knew it was all caused by anxiety until recently. Thank you for this great article.

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